Bringing the HEaT

It’s  Day Five, and things are starting to look city-ish

Today is move-in day in Black Rock City, when most of the people who have been housed in Gerlach pull their trailers or pack their tents and make their way to the playa. Or, more accurately, Makeout Queen and her housing crew make sure it all happens.

Makeout has a very full plate. As the mistress of all things housing, she’s at the top of the chain, supervising the process that gets 70 or so trailers in various states of worthiness from the town to the desert over the next day or so.

Makeout is quite a force in the morning meetings — and everywhere else, for that matter. She is a clothing designer now based in Los Angeles (, she’s a singer, and her stint as a bartender at Alameda’s iconic Lucky 13 bar is still the stuff of legend. An unforgettable character, in so many settings. But this might be one of the most demanding days of her very full year.

Which is all a preamble to note that another transition that is taking place today, as well. So far, pretty much the only people who have been staying on the playa are people from the HEaT crew – Heavy Equipment and Transpo (as in Transportation)

They are the operators of the big machines here, the ones who help everyone else get their stuff squared away. And they’ve been using the time between when most of the DPW arrives to the day they move to the playa to get their own house – and camp – in order.

The cranes and VRs and Hysters and trenchers started popping up even as the Fence was being installed around the city’s perimeter. The HEaT yard is taking shape at its customary spot around 5:35 and Esplanade. There’s already a rudimentary power grid, some shade, and a warren of living containers already set in place. They’re getting ready to help the other support staff here, plus honorarium artists, and other artists, and maybe even a smattering of theme camps, if the workload allows.

Like seemingly every other department this year, there are a goodly number of newcomers trying to fit in and figure out how to do all this. About 20 of the 50 or so operators and 12 support people are new, but there is also a core of veterans who are communicating a message of professionalism and pride.


One of Gary Wilson’s top responsibilities these past few days has been checking the equipment as it arrives from vendors, specifically the readiness of the cranes. He’s an operator himself, and Cuervo, the chief of operations at HEaT, and Chaos, the major domo of operations for all of Black Rock City, have him checking the gear as it arrives.

Gary is as meticulous in this task as he is with all the other things he does (don’t try to bulldoze him with crane lift that looks sketchy: It’s just not going to happen.) He takes pictures, makes notes, writes reports, all in an effort to make sure that HEaT doesn’t don’t get stuck with a faulty piece of equipment miles and miles from nowhere.


Pope Phabulous has been one of the “twins” operating the Hysters for longer than most people can remember. As he said the other day, this is a year of fives for him: He turned the big 5-0 on Monday, this is his 15th year of working DPW at Burning Man, and he just marked his fifth year of sobriety. He’s also been running one of the Hysters for a decade.

Pope is an engaging, energetic soul. It takes a while to bust through the psychological armor that he erects around himself, but when you do, there’s gold. We don’t want to piss him off, because that is a very unwise thing to do, but we’ll go so far as to say that there’s a philosopher and poet lurking within. And one who’s extremely proud of what he does.

“I had the advantage of knowing exactly what I wanted to do from the time I was in the eighth grade,” he says. “I knew I was going to be an artist. I knew I was going to be a graphic designer.

“I was this weird amalgamation – I was a jock, but I was also an artist. So I always felt like I was the protector of the art nerds. … So here I am, I’m going to be 50 years old, and I’m still the protector of the art nerds.

“You find your place in life and hold to it, I guess.”

HEaT keeps of log of everything they do, every call they answer, and last year that log had more than 4,000 entries. So that’s a lot of work.

From the beginning of when HEaT became a separate department, after the 2006 season, “You had to show up with your work boots on, because the last thing you want is to be cut for the day and see somebody else running your machine,” Pope says. “That’s the ethos. … You get up and you do your job and you don’t bitch. … If you get too hot to be in the saddle, just use your words.”

Pope knows that this isn’t going to last forever. Either he’ll get tired of it, or something else will happen, but in the meantime, his path is clear: “If I can continue to come here and build a place that changes peoples’ lives, then I’m going to continue to do it for as long as possible. That’s it. … Because that’s where art becomes community value.”

We both get a little embarrassed by the depth of the sentiment that has come pouring out of him. And then he says, “But at the same time I’m gonna tell you that Burning Man is stupid.” And then we can laugh, and laugh hard.

Cars Are Real

So there’s an ethos that gets handed down at HEaT, even if we don’t quite know how or why it all started. But it’s here.

Cars Are Real works as one of the machine operators at HEaT, and he takes a few turns in the hot seat of dispatch, as well. Those are the people who take the calls and get the right piece of equipment to the right place. They wear at least two radios, but they can still maintain a train of thought. In the middle of a sentence, they can somehow hear that they’re being hailed on the radio, handle that business, then pick up exactly where they left off. Cuervo can do it, and Chaos can, too. It’s some innate ability you have to have for the job.

The din is so unrelenting that sometimes you still hear the voices on the radio even when you’re not wearing a radio anymore. In fact, WeldBoy, who did a turn as a HEaT dispatcher a couple of years ago, says he not only still heard the radio voices, but he started to worry when he started answering them, too.

But Carts Are Real was talking about the ethos and the difference between Burning Man and the other festivals that he works over the course of the year.

“Every other festival is produced by the company that’s running it, as well as whoever they contract. … And the ‘no spectators’ ethos of Burning Man leads to a very very different festival experience, as cheesy as that sounds. … And it also attracts a very different demographic.

“While it’s true to a certain extent at other festivals and situations, it’s very clear here that people approach each other with a certain openness and neighborliness, and an actual willingness to meet the people around them. It’s very uncommon out in the real world, and not to this degree at other festivals, where people are putting the responsibility for their experience on the company that’s producing it.”

That doesn’t happen here. The company that is putting on the event is the same one that produces it. It’s all in-house. And HEaT is a big part of how they can do that. And as for the experience itself? Well, that’s on you, boyo.


Cuervo is in his second year running the show at HEaT, and he insists that I get it right: His main job is to make everyone else’s job easier.

He and his crew have had about a four-day jump start to get ready to help everybody else get ready. Since the flag dropped on Fence day and the first “road trains” of triple container loads hit Haul Road, they’ve been in a sprint to get everything from the ranch to here, and to get themselves set up.

And it isn’t enough to get all those containers that are stored on the ranch – and there are hundreds and hundreds of them – from one point to another. They have to be dropped in exactly the right spot, so that the departments receiving the containers get what they need. It’s a harder task than it might sound, because there are no points of reference out here. It’s just the wide-open desert, with a bunch of flags in the ground offering the only guidance.

Cuervo emphasizes that the importance of the Power and Water departments can’t be minimized, and it can’t, because those are things you can’t do without, either. They are doing a similar thing, giving people what they need to have to be able to do their jobs.

It’s easy to forget that this hippy rave dance party will actually be a functioning city of 70,000 or so residents. Challenge and uncertainty abound. And while part of you can’t believe how much already has been done in the four days since Fence, another part of you can’t believe how much there’s still left to do.

So we’ll head back out there now, plunge back into the day that Coyote calls the riskiest day of the year, because all those sometimes janky trailers have to be hauled to Black Rock City, and the repetition and the heat and the dust can dull your reflexes, and accidents can happen.

So we’ll do our best to stay sharp (meaning, mostly stay out of the way, to be honest), and we’ll look forward to having our first meal on the playa tonight.

That’s right: The place where they put up a tent yesterday will host a couple of hundred people for dinner tonight.

Miracles never cease.

Here are a few more pics:


Harnesses for the high-wire work


Getting the shade squared away


Sleeping quarters


The HEaT dispatch “tower” is getting pulled together


Early signs of habitation


One of the “road trains.”



About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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